Chinese New Year is Friday, January 31!
Welcome to Foodnut.com’s Beginners Introduction to Chinese Dim Sum. (Also see Beginners Introduction to an Authentic Chinese Dinner)
In this guide you will find a comprehensive introduction to dim sum that will help guide you in your new exploration into Chinese food. Dim Sum (meaning “to touch your heart”) or Yam Tsa (“Drinking Tea”) is foreign to many people, so we thought it would be useful to write up a short tutorial on what to expect, and what to order. Chinese restaurants can be a loud and intimidating place with lots of different foods, faces, and languages being spoken. We are seeking to bridge the gap and get more folks into world of dim sum. No more looking around at other tables and pointing their dishes.
Be sure to read Best Chinese Restaurant, San Francisco
Here are some of Foodnut’s Favorite Dim Sum restaurants around the world – Koi Palace, Daly City, California – Sea Harbour, Richmond, BC Canada – Lung King Heen, Hong Kong, China – Lei Garden, Beijing, China – Hakkasan, London, UK.
Good places to begin your San Francisco Bay Area dim sum experience include:
Look for a popular dim sum restaurant in your area, preferably one that is extremely busy, which will increase the likelihood that the food is of high quality. Most restaurants start serving dim sum around 10 or 11 AM. Crowds start appearing shortly before noon, so we recommend you arrive approximately 30 minutes after the restaurant opens. Some restaurants take reservations or give out numbers by phone, so be sure to call ahead to prevent waiting. Eating dim sum in the early afternoon may allow some dishes to sell out or soggy items to be served. Restaurants advertising dim sum at all hours should probably be avoided.
Dim Sum originated in China when tea houses were erected to serve the travelers on the Silk Road. They slowly added varieties of foods and the tradition of dim sum was established. In Hong Kong, dim sum is a morning tradition with some restaurants opening as early as 6 AM in the morning, and folks leisurely reading their newspapers, socializing, and nibbling for hours on end. Chinese immigrants, many from the Canton region brought this custom to the US in the 1900s. We concentrate on the well known Chinese Cantonese style of dim sum. Other forms of dim sum include Mandarin Chinese style dim sum from Northern China.
When you’re first seated at a dim sum restaurant, you’ll be first asked what type of tea you would like. A safe bet is to ask for the classic Oolong black tea. If the waiter has limited English capability, say “Oolong Tea please”. Ask for a fork if you need one.
Chinese etiquette dictates that the person pouring tea should pour some for everyone else before serving themselves. When receiving some tea, you should make a finger tapping action on the table next to the tea cup as a way of saying thanks. Knocking your fist on the table equates to asking the person to kneel!
When you need to you refill, you can ask for more tea by simply flipping up the top of the teapot and waiting for the servers to notch it.
Some restaurants have dim sum carts and waitresses holding dim sum trays roaming the aisles. Diners can then just point to what they want. The biggest advantage to this system is that you can see food before you get it, and gets to you much quicker. The downside is that you need to wait for specific dishes to appear, and food may have been roaming for a while making it soggy or cold.
Most restaurants serving dim sum this way will also have a dim sum menu that you can order from. Larger dishes like noodles and porridge must be ordered through a waiter. Often times restaurants will have a checkoff sheet for ordering during the week, then move to a hybrid cart/menu on the busier weekend.
Steamer Dim Sum Cart
Other restaurants will be purely menu-driven. Diners either check off the items they want or order them from the waiter. More user friendly menus will flag the most popular dishes, house specialties, and vegetarian items.
Dim Sum Menu or Check list
Dim Sum Selection
Dim Sum mostly comes as small delectable bites of food, best enjoyed family-style, when you have several people dining together. (3 or more folks are optimal) Share the little dishes and do not order more than one of each dish, so you can sample 5 to 10 different dishes out of the 25 – 100 available, on each visit. Some dishes have items that can be cut in half, others do not.
We divide dim sum up into separate categories and list the most popular items that you should consider ordering. Chinese restaurants in the US do not serve cat, dog, or many other items that scare folks away. Only outside the US can you find exotic dishes like starfish, scorpion, and donkey penis. The name of each food item may be slightly different than our guide. Please do not hesitate printing this article out or opening this page up on your smart phone and showing our pictures.
Steamed Dumpling Dim Sum
These items are cooked and served within bamboo steaming baskets. The Steamer Dim Sum Cart pictured above will house stacks of these containers. You can gesture to the servers to open the tops to see what is inside or show them our pictures to select these steamed dim sum dishes.
Steamed Shrimp Dumplings or har gow is the most popular dim sum dish. Almost every table orders this dish. Little balls of shrimp are formed with chopped bamboo shoots, and wrapped in a thin rice flour based wrapper, and then steamed. The better places use large whole shrimp.
Shrimp and pea shoot dumplings are similar to the shrimp dumplings, but add pea shoot vegetables to the ingredients. You’ll find other similar steamed dumplings with other ingredients inside. Popular ones are the Scallop and Shrimp dumpling and the Fun Gow or Chiu Chow steamed dumpling with pork, shrimp, and peanuts.
Siu Mai dumplings are popular steamed dumplings made with the wonton style wrapper and some densely packed chopped pork, mushroom, shrimp in the middle.
Steamed pork dumplings filled with soup or Xiao Long Bao are more of a northern Chinese dish served at many dim sum restaurants. You take a small bite, suck out all the hot soup, then eat the rest of the dumpling. They are usually far better at Shanghai Chinese cuisine restaurants like Shanghai Dumpling shop. We avoid ordering them at dim sum restaurants.
Steamed Dim sum
Steamed pork spare ribs in black bean sauce features chopped up pork ribs cooked in a black bean sauce with a tiny bit of mild chili’s. This dish is a little greasy but is good for people that like pork. You can order a bowl of rice to fully appreciate this dish.
Steamed BBQ Pork Buns or char siu bao are staple of dim sum. Steamed bun surrounds a filling full of chopped Chinese style barbecue roast pork.
Lotus wrapped steamed sticky rice is a steamed dish where the glutinous rice is wrapped green lotus leaves and steamed until done. The filling includes minced pork, egg, chicken, mushroom, and other items.
Minced Beef Balls are a combination of beef, egg, cilantro, and other items rolled up and steamed. Suitable even for kids, this dish is pretty universal.
Baked Dim Sum
Baked Pork Buns are a variant of the steamed barbecued pork buns where the bun is baked in an oven instead of being steamed.
Steamed rice roll or rice noodle are tender white, wide noodles that surround an interior filling full of shrimp, char siu pork, or beef. This is often served with soy sauce.
Beef Chow Fun is usually ordered from a waiter. The wok cooked rice noodles are wide and thin and a company with bean sprouts, sliced beef, green onion. Chow fun can often be prepared without meat.
Chicken Chow Mein noodles are also ordered the waiter. The wok tossed noodles are usually egg-based and include beans sprout, chopped chicken, green onions, and scallions.
Pan Fried Dim Sum – Deep Fried Dim Sum
Egg Rolls are spring rolls are deep-fried delicacies full of chopped vegetables like daikon, meat, and other ingredients wrapped in a egg based wheat wrapper and deep-fried.
Pan fried daikon cake is a savory dish that combines the radish-like chopped daikon with barbecue pork and dried shrimp into a cake that is steamed and then pan fried to give it a crust.
Deep-fried mixed meat puff or dumpling are deep-fried balls of dough filled with chopped pork, chives, and shrimp. These little dumplings are very crunchy and often greasy.
Special Dim Sum
Some restaurants serve small portions of dishes that are meant for dinner at dim sum lunch time. This serves as a good introduction to the Chinese foods that are eaten for dinner.
Sea bass is often a Chilean sea bass served with a black bean sauce.
Peking duck slices are sometimes served individually with a steamed bun and some scallions and a sweet plum sauce. A full order of Peking duck is usually far better than this individual serving.
Steamed Chinese Broccoli (Gai Lan) is a simple and healthy dish full of blanched Chinese vegetables. These are often served with oyster sauce, which vegetarians may want to omit.
Dessert Dim Sum
Deep-fried sesame balls are crispy deep fried dough balls filled with a sweet black sesame paste. The filling can be an acquired taste.
Mango pudding is a more mainstream dessert with pudding, chunks of real mango, and a topping of sweet condensed milk.
Egg Custard Tart are traditional flaky pastry tarts filled with a sweet egg custard.
Green tea jello or almond jello or another flavor of Jell-O is often available during dim sum.
More Technical Dim Sum
These dishes may require a more adventurous palate and should be saved for future visits, after you’ve mastered the basic items above.
Steamed puréed egg yolk bun is variant of the steamed pork bun. The inside filling is puréed egg yolk, making this more of a sweet pastry.
Porridge or congee or rice soup is a long simmered bland watery dish that is often accompanied with chicken, beef, fish, or other ingredients.
Chicken Feet translated to from Chinese to English as phoenix claw, shows that the Chinese are into head to toe eating. The marinated and steamed cartilage is more soft, chewy, and salty than anything else.
Deep Fried Taro Puff consists of the rooty vegetable taro, which is also used to make poi. It is deep-fried along with a crispy crust. This dish is vegetarian friendly.
Shark fin dumpling in broth is a totally non-politically correct dish but a staple of higher-end dim sum. The dumpling is filled with seafood including dried shark’s fin and based in a seafood stock soup.
The following items should be on your order list. Chinese Greens without oyster sauce, Sweet Taro Buns, Egg Custard tarts, Sesame balls, Custard Rolls, Vegetable steamed dumplings, Chinese donut rice crepes, Peanut or green tea pancakes, Egg yolk buns, any Jello, Steamed sponge cake, Congee or porridge without meat, Sweet Tofu soup, Soy sauce noodles, Fermented soy bean chow fun, Fried Tofu, pan fried lotus root.
As you order dishes, the waiter or the servers will mark your table’s bill with the stamp indicating that you ordered a particular dish. Dishes are typically classified small, medium, large, or special with each class outside of special having a fixed price. Typical price may be $3.20 for small dishes, $4.50 for medium, and $5.50 for large. Some restaurants classify dishes in different classes than others. You will also be charged for tea on a per person basis. At the end of lunch, the waiter will add up the total and present you with a final bill. Ask for to go boxes if necessary.
We hope you found this introduction to Chinese dim sum helpful. Our goal is to get more folks expand their palettes and to try this tasty cuisine. Please leave comments and suggestions to help us improve this article. Thank you to Elvis and Kubette for their help on this article.